DALLAS (AP) – When Larry Sims visited a Dallas cemetery to place flowers on his mother’s grave, he was joined by seven men who barely know him and never knew his mother.

The men were there because they know what it’s like to spend years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

The scene at the cemetery, where Sims’ mother was buried in an unmarked grave 22 years ago, was yet another example of the ties that bind within Dallas’ growing community of men whose convictions have been overturned through DNA testing.

Sims, 61, was released from prison after 24 years last month on a judge’s order because DNA tests indicated he was wrongly convicted of aggravated sexual assault. He still must clear a series of legal hurdles before he can be considered exonerated. But when word got out that he would be visiting his mother’s grave for the first time Tuesday, seven exonerees gathered with him on the wind-swept ground to pray and sing.

“We do this for the cause,” said Billy Smith, who was exonerated in 2006 after serving nearly 20 years for aggravated sexual assault. “We have a sense of commitment to keep a bond between us.”

In the last 10 years, there have been 21 DNA exonerations in Dallas, the most of any county in the nation. The record is unmatched because the county’s crime lab keeps biological evidence for decades, leaving samples that can be tested.

As the number of exonerees has grown, the men have banded together, forming a network that provides emotional support as well as the clout to bring their concerns about the criminal justice system and the problems associated with re-entering society after decades of imprisonment to the attention of lawmakers.

When another person is scheduled to be exonerated, those who have already been through the process show up for the hearing. They also attend one another’s family events, including weddings and funerals.

“They view each other as more than friends,” said Dorothy Budd, a former Dallas County prosecutor who has co-authored a book on Dallas’ exonerees. “They view each other as family.”

Before being released, exonerees “work their cases like their jobs,” and that carries over into their lives on the outside, Budd said.

“They see themselves as a group eliminating injustice,” she said. “It helps give them a place, give them a purpose.”

At the heart of the alliance is Jaimie Page, an assistant professor of social work at Texas A&M-Commerce who started a support group for Dallas’ exonerees when she was teaching at the University of Texas-Arlington.

The UTA Exoneree Project has sponsored events highlighting the problems exonerees face upon their release from prison while also bringing the Dallas group together for regular meetings. The meetings, typically held at a church, have frequently focused on developing legislation that can improve the exonerees’ lives.

“These guys mean business,” Page said. “They’re serious about changing laws. They’re serious about changing society.”

Two years ago, the Texas Legislature passed a law giving each exoneree $80,000 for every year spent in prison, an increase of $30,000 per year. Some of the compensation is paid out as an annuity, ensuring a lifetime income.

Now exonerees are seeking health care and other services such as vocational training and job placement. They plan to promote those issues during the current legislative session.

“A lot of these men went into prison healthy and came out unhealthy — diabetes, seizures, hypertension, even cancer,” Page said. “They really want and need health care.”

Smith, a diabetic, said he makes quarterly payments of $2,100 for health insurance.

“They gave me (money), but they’re not helping me keep it,” he said.

Johnnie Lindsey, another exoneree who came out to support Sims, said he was diagnosed with colon cancer while he was in prison. He said he doesn’t have insurance because he can’t get it.

“They won’t touch me with a 10-foot pole,” said Lindsey, who served 26 years for aggravated rape before his conviction was overturned in 2008.

For Sims, still subject to supervision and electronic monitoring, complete freedom and the issues that come with it won’t be possible until his case is reviewed by prosecutors and an appeals court.

Still, for one day at least, he fulfilled his dream of seeing his mother’s grave, and he was greeted as a brother by those in the club he hopes to join.

“This is one of the greatest days I’ve had since being free,” he said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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